Firespotting equipment has evolved over the years

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Tree Talk, Joanna Angle

One of my favorite childhood memories is of hiking a mountain trail in southwest Virginia with my father.

We were walking along admiring the flowering Mountain Laurel when suddenly we were in a clearing staring up at a very tall fire lookout tower.

I was fascinated by the idea of someone living so high above the trees scanning the horizon for puffs of smoke.

For years afterward I secretly dreamed of being that person, the sentinel standing watch over the forest.

Construction of the nation’s network of fire towers began as a response to the devastating forest fires of 1910 that roared across Idaho, Montana and Washington, destroying 3 million acres of virgin timber and killing 85 people.

During the next three decades, more than 5,000 towers were built, more than 600 of which were Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) projects.

Fire spotters were immeasurably aided by an invention created by William B. Osborne, a graduate of Yale Forestry School, in his home workshop during the winter of 1910-11.

His “firefinder” used a map mounted on a horizontal rotating steel disc to which brass sighting devices were attached.

The first forest rangers and lookouts to use this tool were amazed at the accuracy with which the location of fires could be pinpointed.

Over time the Osborne Firefinder was improved with more powerful sighting scopes and more precise calibration.

In the early days of firetowers, communication to the ground was by a
heliograph, which sent Morse code signals by two mirrors reflecting sunlight.

Later rudimentary telephone systems using single strands of galvanized wire attached to trees with insulators were employed until portable radios became standard equipment.

With the advent of infrared detection devices, the use of surveillance flights by airplanes and helicopters and the development of county 911 systems, many fire towers across America have been taken out of service or are utilized to a much lesser extent.

Some towers have been repurposed as scenic vista points for forest visitors while others are rented for short periods to those seeking rustic accommodations with a 360-degree, 20-plus mile view.

The Internet offers a wealth of information about the architecture of firetowers, first-person accounts by fire spotters, vintage photographs and even copies of Fire Tower Cookbooks.

Joanna Angle is a Master Tree Farmer and 2012 South Carolina Tree Farmer of the Year.
Her Cedarleaf Farm in Chester County is a Certified Stewardship Forest and part of the American Tree Farm System.